Rule #32 – Become a Probe Master

The biggest mistake that sales reps make in sales meetings is mismanaging the discussion flow and failing to appropriately extract enough valuable information from the customer. This is easier said than done. A fundamental skill in effective selling is the ability to draw in the customer while you draw out information. Mastering the art of the well-executed discovery sales call is really about the asking of effective probing questions that achieve these desired results.

In a customer sales call or meeting, there’s a simple and easy to remember framework that will keep you on a logical discussion/questioning path to effective customer discovery. I teach salespeople to interview prospects and customers like a news reporter. Like a good investigative reporter, salespeople need to gather basic foundational information, then further explore the challenge or problem with probing questions. There are four parts to the Probe Master framework using the acronym N.E.W.S.

    1. Now Questions – Information Gathering About Current Situation. First, collect basic background information about their current environment, situation or status. For instance, when I’m meeting a VP or CEO about a possible sales training or sales consulting engagement, my “Now” questions are as follows: How many sales reps do you have? How many hit their quota last quarter or year? Are they direct or indirect? What is their typical profile? If I’m selling software, my “Now” questions might be: How many users in the organization? What’s your current IT environment? I need basic data to get “the lay of the land.” This is relatively straightforward and easy. Most reps do this fairly well.

    2. Explore Questions – Problem Finding. These are open-ended questions meant to uncover key challenges that your customer/prospect is facing. Questions like: What are your top three departmental challenges? What do you look for in ____? What’s the biggest issue relative to ____? What would you like to achieve this quarter? The key at this point is to resist the very strong temptation to talk about your product. Remember Rule 3! Many reps cannot resist and end up diving into a product discussion before full discovery is done. Hang on tight and move to the next level of questioning.

    3. Why Questions – Problem Understanding. In response to the answers to your previous exploratory questions, respond with natural curiosity as to the reasons for the challenges, issues and problems. Understand the Why (and the Who, What, When, Where and How) behind the problem. Questions like: What do you mean? Why is that? What’s going on? What’s keeping you from getting there? How are you dealing with that? Are those goals achievable? Who’s mostly impacted? The questions here are about finding the important details and implications of the problems and issues uncovered earlier.

    Note: It will be very difficult to resist jumping in and blurting “Our XB1000 Fillibration Oxydizer can reduce that problem by 37% because of our patented hydrogenic biospherous lint de-processor engine.” Please do resist. You should simply say, “I believe we might be able to help you. Before getting to that, I’d like to ask you a few more questions.” Then go right back into asking more exploratory and understanding questions until you have gathered ample data. Now proceed to the last step.

    4. Summary – Reiterate and Confirm Observations. Finally, summarize what you’ve heard and gain confirmation. You may conclude that you need to meet again and include other parties, or come back with further information, or proceed to the next stage of the process such as a demonstration or product pilot.

Bottom line: if you follow these Probe Master steps you will present yourself as a good and careful listener who asks pertinent questions, who’s not pushy with a solution, and who diagnoses before prescribing a fix. These are all very good impressions to leave with a prospect/customer. You will have successfully drawn them in while you’ve drawn out information. (By the way, these techniques will help in personal relationships too!)

Are you a Probe Master?